coming up roses, daffodils and thousands of other flowers for
Mukwonago floral designer Kevin Ylvisaker. And no matter what bloom,
blossom, ornamental grass or seed pod he has to work with, the final
arrangement is sure to leave the viewer breathless from the beauty.
Ylvisaker’s list of accomplishments shows he’s at the top of
his game: designer and design captain for two presidential inaugural
balls, judge of the Tournament of Roses Parade, guest floral designer
on the PBS show, "At Home with Flowers." He’s been in the
floral industry for more than 30 years, starting first as a retail
florist and then adding wholesale florist, educator and freelance
designer to his stellar resume.
"He’s an extremely talented person," says Marty Loppnow,
vice president, Waukesha Floral and Greenhouse. "He’s an
amazing ambassador for the floral industry."
For all of his successes, flowers were not Ylvisaker’s first
interest. He attended Bethany College in Kansas, majoring in art and
art education with an emphasis in sculpture. Later he transferred from
Bethany to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and switched his
artistic interest from sculpture to weaving.
It was during his time in Kansas that he took his first job in the
floral industry as a delivery person for a local florist. One year, in
addition to making deliveries, he was allowed to wire and tape
corsages for Mother’s Day. Those experiences came in handy when he
returned to Milwaukee, not far from Pewaukee where he grew up.
"With only wire and taping experience, I was hired at a Milwaukee
floral shop," he says. "I found I had a career going and my
weaving was put on hold."
The local job offer led to an 18-year stint managing Baumgarten
Krueger Floral and exposed Ylvisaker to various facets of the floral
industry. Word of his creativity reached industry experts and
Ylvisaker was invited to show off his work at wholesale design shows.
That eventually led to a job with Denver Wholesale Florist selling
product and creating displays.
It wasn’t long after that Ylvisaker joined the American Institute
of Floral Designers, the largest certifying body in the world that
recognizes floral design. This connection proved to be fortuitous. He
was asked to work on the flowers for two presidential inaugurations
— those of George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton. For the Bush Sr.
inauguration, he was one of 100 designers and his work earned him a
promotion to design team captain for Clinton’s first inauguration.
Ylvisaker recalls those experiences with some humor. "We were
picked up at 3 or 4 in the morning from our (low-budget) motel and
taken to an unheated warehouse where we put hundreds of centerpieces
together," he says. "We couldn’t make one insertion that
wasn’t approved by the committee. Twenty-four hours a day, flowers
were going somewhere."
As with many life experiences, hindsight puts them in the best
light. "They look good on paper, but they’re a lot of
work," he says. "But it’s something I wouldn’t
change," especially since he was able to attend one of the balls
for Bush Sr.
Ylvisaker’s growing reputation within the industry earned him an
appointment as a Tournament of Roses Parade judge. He was one of only
three judges for the 1997 parade, coincidentally the year Wisconsin
played in the Rose Bowl. "You really have to pay your dues to get
up there," he admits. Ylvisaker says that people are only allowed
to judge the parade one time. But that once-in-a-lifetime experience
had an added bonus: seats on the 50-yard line at the Rose Bowl.
Television coverage of the parade doesn’t do justice to the
floats’ grandeur. Behind the scenes, the floats are really an
incredible exercise in the tiniest of details. The non-perishable
seeds, beans and dried product are affixed to the structure ahead of
time. Imagine using tweezers to apply the individual beans so that
they all lie in the same direction. Three days before the parade, the
flowers are inserted. "It’s like a beehive of designers putting
flowers on at the last minute," says Ylvisaker. "It’s an
amazing thing to be a part of."
For several years in the late 1980s, earning more frequent flyer
miles than he’d care to admit, Ylvisaker was teaching and doing
seminars across the world. He decided to return home and joined Badger
Wholesale Florists in Milwaukee selling fresh flowers. While there, he
became part of a national design team for Teleflora, the flower
delivery company, teaching florists the latest designs. Smithers
Oasis, the company that manufactures the ubiquitous green foam found
stabilizing the majority of cut flower arrangements, also recruited
him for their design team.
His industry reputation sealed, Ylvisaker left Badger Wholesale to
form his own company, KLY Floral International, and become a freelance
designer and educator. "My love really is in teaching," he
admits, explaining the decision.
Like many freelancers, no two days are alike. One day will find
Ylvisaker designing displays for an antique import furniture shop. The
next will have him doing a public demonstration on the season’s hot
new looks. "We’ve featured him at our spring and Christmas open
houses," says Loppnow. "Kevin is such a natural for that. He
has a good stage presence and can expound and talk and pull the
audience in. His classes are always full at shows even if the
designers have to pay to attend."
Michael Gaffney, owner of both the Milwaukee School of Flower
Design and Tulipomania European Flower Market, holds Ylvisaker
personally responsible for where he is today. "I blame everything
on him," says Gaffney, tongue-in-cheek. "Every time I have
seven weddings in a weekend, I know it was Kevin who got me into
Like Ylvisaker, Gaffney had no intentions of building a career
around flowers. "We both have the same history of ‘Oops, here
we are,’" he says. Gaffney, who started out as a truck driver
with an interest in design, has progressed, thanks to Ylivsaker’s
mentoring, to where he designs floral arrangements for some of the
biggest names in the home accessory business, Lalique and Waterford
Crystal to name just two. "Now I have two schools, a retail shop
and I’m planning on opening up another shop in New York," says
Gaffney. "He’s (Ylvisaker) a great, great talent in the
Working with beautiful products can’t help but inspire a
consistent flow of new ideas. But creativity is a well that needs to
be constantly refilled. "Mother Earth is my inspiration for a lot
of it," says Ylvisaker. He also reads sculpture and fiber arts
magazines and relaxes in the backyard of his Mukwonago home, which
boasts a sophisticated garden railroad layout.
Ylivasker and his partner, Jim Hunnicutt, built the Rocky Lights
Railroad, a G-scale railroad with 900 feet of track, 50 buildings and
over 500 plants. True to form, Ylvisaker does all of the gardening
work and Hunnicutt does the woodwork. The railroad began on a rather
small scale, just something to decorate their backyard deck. But never
one to do things halfway, the duo decided to move the layout into the
garden and expand it. "If we knew in our older age it was going
to be harder to bend down, we would have brought in more dirt and made
it higher," he says.
Asked to name his favorite flower, Ylvisaker hesitates. "I
actually tend to enjoy more of a garden flower," he admits,
"although they don’t last as long." But whatever the
flower, it had better have fragrance. He also prefers to work with
pink products and tends to eschew anything that’s blue. "Blue
just calms me down a little too much," he explains.
Unlike many who retire after years in one industry, Ylvisaker will
never have to worry about his legacy. He’s already left one.